The lasting influence of this year’s Gold Cup may be at an individual level While winning a confederation title will always be an honor to the players who made up the United States’ CONCACAF champions, the tournament came in the middle of a World Cup cycle. Not only did that mean many key players were rested, but it also placed the past two weeks’ results in the context of the States’ path to Brazil. Which players were improving their stocks was more discussed than the matches’ results.
That perspective wasn’t lost on the media post-match, a group who were quick to ask about Landon Donovan. After a tournament where the returning attacker was clearly the competition’s best player, there was a natural curiosity as to his status with the national team. Is he back in the fold, fully re-established after this winter’s sabbatical? Or will the U.S. continue to forge through qualifying without him.
You don’t have to be the U.S.’s most ardent fan to know the answer. If you’re playing well and fit what Klinsmann’s trying to accomplish, you’re going to be called in. And after raising his Most Valuable Players’ trophy after today’s victory, there’s no doubt Donovan’s both playing well and fits.
It’s absolutely normal that there’s a high probability that he joins us for the September games. It’s absolutely a non-discussion. But he also knows that it’s always the present. It’s always about today and tomorrow. He took that very well. He accepted that role. He swallowed a couple pills, which is normal.
Donovan’s biggest backers won’t want to see references to “pills,” taking things well, or anything short of a guarantee of a qualifying role. But beyond that loyalty-fueled perspective, this is as positive an outcome as Donovan could have hoped for from this tournament.
There are very few players Klinsmann would give a rosier prognosis than “high probability.” Maybe the Dempseys, Bradleys,and Howards of the world get some rope, but we saw what happened to Jozy Altidore last November. He international play waned, he ceased fitting what Klinsmann was trying to do, and he missed a call up. Nine months later Altidore seems like an obligatory call up, but his arc also shows how quickly things can change.
What if a player’s form dips? Or they get injured? Or other players step up, or there a specific tactical considerations that influence a callup? Along with this absence from previous qualifying teams, that’s where a player like Donovan goes from lock to high probability, and while other coaches may be more willing to give assurances, this is how Jurgen Klinsmann goes about his business. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Besides, any lingering conspiracies about Donovan being held out because of some personality conflict or internal rift were addressed by the player himself, reflecting on the process that led to his Gold Cup triumph:
I wasn’t in a place to contribute then … I wanted to come back and contribute, so it feels good to help.
Provided Donovan carries his Gold Cup form into the MLS’s second half, he’ll be called in come September. There doesn’t need to be a big sit down. There are no hatchets to bury. He’s a player in the pool, and when he warrants a spot, he gets it.
The more interesting consideration is what, exactly, that entails. The U.S. is at the top of their qualifying group, seemingly cruising to a spot in Brazil. While that doesn’t preclude Donovan claiming a spot in Klinsmann’s starting XI, it does hint there’s some competition. Something is working right now. There may be nothing to fix. In that picture, where would the Galaxy star fit in? And at what expense?
Some feel he’s best suited for an impact sub’s role. At least initially. Others obviously feel a player of his talent should go right into the team. If he does, does that mean Graham Zusi loses his spot? That was the dynamic that seemed to be in place last month, but now it’s worth wondering if Donovan would move Fabian Johnson to left back and take the left midfielder’s spot.
But also consider: Donovan was used exclusively as a supporting striker in the Gold Cup. While that may have been a function of the squad’s make up, did it also hint at what Klinsmann sees as Donovan’s best role? Be it as Clint Dempsey’s understudy or moving the team’s captain to another position?
As the cliché goes, these are all problems a coach would love to have. And as a credit to how far Donovan’s come in the last few months, they’re also the most pertinent questions surrounding his national team future. Though there’s still a chance he won’t be called into September’s qualifiers, all indications are he will be. Now the discussion shifts to how (and where) he fits.